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Banding together for feathered friends

Four mesh “mist nets”: $200.

Peter Pyle’s “Identification of North American Birds”: $32.

A spotted towhee in the hand: priceless.

For bird enthusiasts who flocked to a banding demonstration last Saturday at Battle Point Park, it was an invaluable chance to get out from behind the binoculars.

“A lot of people on Bainbridge have an interest in birds,” said island biologist Dawn Garcia. “When they have a bird in the hand, though, the questions seem to flow more easily.”

Banding is one of several methods ornithologists use to monitor avian populations.

Birds are captured and marked with a numbered ring attached to the leg, then released back into the wild.

The recapture or recovery of banded birds provides researchers with data on the distribution and movements of species, their relative numbers, annual production, lifespan and causes of death.

While a familiar idea to most birders, few participants have experienced banding first-hand.

“I’ve been a dilettante as far as birding goes,” said islander Bonnie Ingwersen, a near-octogenarian attending the banding demonstration.

“As a teenager, a biology teacher gave us lots of good information about banding, but this is my first time actually doing it.”

The group was eager to learn.

Despite the early hour and the chill in the air, five or six volunteers were on hand before sun-up to help Garcia and husband Mel Richardson set up the four “mist nets” in which the subjects of study – perching birds like nuthatches, chickadees, and sparrows – are caught.

Tromping into the woods at the northeast corner of the park, they stretched rolls of fine black mesh between metal poles. The result resembled a 12-foot-tall volleyball net slung within inches of the ground.

Trailing her volunteers like a brood of ducklings, Garcia moved briskly from net to net, stopping to clear away brush on which a netted bird could fasten its strong feet, or to instruct a volunteer on how to “bait the lanes” with scattered millet.

It soon became clear why Garcia kept moving: Hardly had the four nets been erected and a picnic table arrayed with equipment, when a not-quite-birdlike whistle pierced the air.

At the signal from Richardson, Garcia grabbed a small cloth bag from her kit and hurried in the direction of the third net.

A spotted towhee hung a few inches from the ground, ensnared in the nearly invisible mesh.

Garcia gently removed the bird, narrating her actions to the volunteers crowding around.

“You want to extract the feet first, because ground birds have strong feet and will kick,” she said, carefully holding the legs above the “knee” to keep the bird from further entangling itself.

Placing the bird in the small cloth bag, she returned to the banding station.

Tucking the animal’s upper body between her third and fourth fingers – the “bander’s grip” – she measured the diameter of the leg and selected a metal band for the tiny ankle.

A few moments and a pair of pliers saw the band on the bird, which struggled only occasionally in Garcia’s careful hands.

A volunteer recorded the band number on a log sheet, and Garcia rattled off more vital statistics about the bird’s weight, wing and tail length, skull development and the degree of wear on the feathers, as well as the probable sex and age of the bird – often not much easier to gauge up close than it is with a pair of binoculars.

Garcia blew on the towhee’s chest to ruffle its feathers, looking for signs of molting and for the amount of fat the bird has stored.

The whistle sounded again, and soon a string of bags – set to swaying occasionally by the anxious birds inside – were hanging on a clothes line stretched between two chairs. With Garcia for an active coach, the volunteers took on the task of banding, measuring and recording.

The shock of capture and the chill from hanging immobilized in the net can be hard on the smaller perching birds. They are also vulnerable to predators – both feral and domestic felines are significant threats.

“Many people think that cats are a natural part of the ecosystem, but of course cats are another introduced predator,” Garcia said.

“If they are fat and happy, that doesn’t mean they aren’t going to go out and hunt – that’s their instinct.”

Data collected by Garcia and her volunteers will be reported to the region’s “master bird bander” in Olympia, who will forward it to the Bird Banding Laboratory in Patuxent, Md., which coordinates most banding efforts in North America.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wildlife management agencies in the U.S. and Canada band about 300,000 migratory game birds and 700,000 non-game birds every year. The vast majority of these are banded by university researchers, non-profit groups, and avocational ornithologists like Garcia.

Bird brains

Garcia began banding birds in Kansas in 1993 as an intern for the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship program, which has banding stations all over North America.

It was a bit of a departure for the environmental studies major; six months before, she and Richardson had been in Rwanda working with mountain gorillas.

Forced to evacuate by the country’s civil war, Garcia looked for another hands-on field assignment, pursuing her long-time interest in birds.

Garcia, who now works for an environmental consulting firm in Seattle, banded birds in her backyard on Bainbridge for several years before making the move to Battle Point Park this year.

Her goal with the monthly demonstrations is mostly educational.

“I want to introduce people to what birds are, how banding contributes to science, and the importance of habitat,” she said.

Garcia is supported in her efforts by Kitsap County Audubon Society, which had numerous members in attendance last week.

“We have a very active conservation program,” said Diana Sheridan, president of the 750-member club. “Banding is a key part of that.”

The past few years have seen a resurgence of interest in birds in the region.

Thanks largely to funding from Bainbridge Island’s “One Call for All” program, which accepted Kitsap Audubon as a participant last year, the society has expanded its conservation efforts to include the removal of “ghost nets,” abandoned fishing nets that entrap seabirds, and the construction of 62 purple martin houses at marinas around the county.

Through the Audubon Adventures program, Kitsap teachers are provided materials on conservation they can use in their classrooms.

Garcia hopes the banding demonstrations and other educational events will produce more than just appreciation for birdlife.

She hopes to form a dedicated group of banders to assist with a MAPS station to be set up at the Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center this summer.

Garcia is also an active supporter of the city’s wildlife corridor – an effort to create a contiguous areas of green space through easements, acquisitions and cooperation of private landowners – and looks to the recently passed open space levy to further the conservation cause.

“Bainbridge is a good place to land if you are a bird,” Garcia said, citing the island’s mix of open fields, trees and wetlands.

“We still have some really nice habitat. And preserving habitat is really the only way we are going to preserve bird species.”

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